How to react to emergency vehicles on the road


It can be difficult to know what to do when you see the flashing blue lights of an emergency vehicle. Let's take a look.

Blue lights flashing away, the Doppler effect of the screeching sirens, it’s all very dramatic, and for good reason.

However, the sight of a fire engine, police car or ambulance bearing down on you as seen through the rear mirror is one that can send the heart racing.

The last thing anyone wants is to hold up the emergency services, but unless you know how to react, there’s always a chance that you could become the problem.

One of the biggest issues motorists face is that emergency vehicles can appear from nowhere. At the same time, other drivers may get wind of a police car hurtling at them at speed seconds earlier, creating confusion for those that haven’t spied the oncoming problem.

Certainly, motorists should be vigilant at all times. But it’s equally plausible that you may just be a little behind the curve. Or perhaps a tad unsure about how to respond if the cars in front suddenly stop at a green light or half-way through a manoeuvre to turn into a side road.

For this reason, it makes sense to understand what the law requires of drivers.

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The Highway Code

The Highway Code spells out exactly how a motorist should react in the event that they are faced with an emergency vehicle appearing on the scene.

Part five of the code says:

“You should look and listen for ambulances, fire engines, police, doctors or other emergency vehicles using flashing blue, red or green lights and sirens or flashing headlights, or Highways Agency Traffic Officer and Incident Support vehicles using flashing amber lights.”


Don’t panic

The code says: “When one approaches do not panic. Consider the route of such a vehicle and take appropriate action to let it pass, while complying with all traffic signs.

“If necessary, pull to the side of the road and stop, but try to avoid stopping before the brow of a hill, a bend or narrow section of road.

“Do not endanger yourself, other road users or pedestrians and avoid mounting the kerb. Do not brake harshly on approach to a junction or roundabout, as a following vehicle may not have the same view as you.”


Practical advice

The Highway Code sets out nicely what car users should do, but it is always worth considering the fact that an emergency vehicle is being driven by someone who is under pressure.

You may think it helps to speed up and career along the road, cutting a path for them. In fact, the best thing you can do is slow right down and move over, so they can pass.

READ MORE: Proposed Highway Code changes focus on controversial smart motorways


Check your mirrors

If you hear a siren, check your mirrors. It’s not always clear where an emergency vehicle is until it is almost on top of you.

Watch for tail lights ahead and for flashing blue lights behind you. If in doubt, slow down and pull over. This is a particularly sensible option if you are driving in a heavily congested area.


Junction box issue

Junctions are a pinch point at the best of times, but be aware of pedestrians.

If you stop at a junction, pedestrians may not realise what is going on. Especially those engaging with their phones or with headphones plugged in.

They could step out into the path of the emergency vehicle. Slowing down ahead of the junction will give even the most unaware of pedestrians pause for thought.


Scene of the incident

If you find yourself at the scene of an incident, ensure you don’t add to any problem by loitering or parking inconsiderately.

Ambulances and fire engines in particular take up a lot of space on the road, and firefighters won’t balk at the prospect of ‘bouncing’ a poorly parked car out of the way. After all, people in burning buildings have families, cars don’t.

If your car is clipped by an emergency vehicle responding to a 999 call you should be covered by your insurance provider.

That’s unless your car is parked unlawfully, such as on double yellow lines. Drivers who rely on hazard lights rather than parking properly are also unlikely to receive much sympathy from their insurer.


What if …

What to do if you hear a siren or are confronted with a fire engine, police car or ambulance rocketing toward you is a genuine concern. With this in mind, here are some of the more pertinent questions and answers that drivers seek:

  • Can you jump a red light? The answer is no. If you pass through a red light, a yellow junction box or enter a bus lane you may well be considered to have driven unlawfully and could face a fine.
  • Can you speed to help emergency vehicles? No. Emergency vehicles respond to all manner of incidents, including drivers who exceed the speed limit and crash, so your good intentions can just add to the problem. Pull over, safely, rather than attempt to break the land speed record.
  • Should you use the hard shoulder? This is not a good idea as the emergency services will resort to the hard shoulder to by-pass traffic on motorways that are clogged up by an incident somewhere up the line. If you need to pull over, try to move as far from the passageway that an emergency vehicle may use.
  • Should you pull up onto the pavement? No. You may be moving too fast to judge the stopping speed and could endanger pedestrians. Likewise, if you stop on a corner, people and traffic ahead may not be able to see the incoming emergency vehicle traffic. Just slow down, stick your hazard lights on and wait until the blue lights pass.
  • What if I just don’t know what to do! You may be popping to the shops for a pint of milk or a loaf of bread, and suddenly all hell breaks loose. This is a distinct possibility, but just bear in mind that the man or woman behind the wheel of the ambulance, fire engine or police car is trained to drive under this level of pressure. You are not. All you need to do is safely pull over and let them pass.